By Dennis Crouch
Over the past year, the Federal Circuit has decided dozens of important patent cases. Of those, one of the most important appears to be 3M Innovative Props. Co. v. Tredegar Corp., 725 F.3d 1315 (Fed. Cir. 2013). When I wrote about the decision in August 2013, I titled my post “Judge Plager: Construe Ambiguous Terms Against the Drafter.” In the decision, Judge Plager’s concurring opinion was the most pointed and poignant. However, each of the judges wrote their own opinions, with Judge Reyna writing for the majority and Judge O’Malley both concurring-in-part and dissenting-in-part.
Judge Plager’s concurring opinion focuses on the intentional ambiguity inserted into the claims by 3M. Judge Plager argues that courts should begin to apply the contract doctrine of contra proferentem and construe ambiguous terms against the drafter (i.e., against the patent holder). Judge Plager writes:
Sometimes such ambiguity [in claim drafting] is the result of sloppy drafting, and sometimes it appears that claims are drafted with a degree of indefiniteness so as to leave room to later argue for a broad interpretation designed to capture later-developed competition. . . .
Cases like this—claim construction issues such as this one—may well deserve application of a principle analogous to the contract doctrine of contra proferentem. See Williston on Contracts § 32:12 (4th ed.). When a term is ambiguous, a crystal ball matter, the ambiguity should be construed against the draftsman. (Or better yet, the claim should simply be invalidated as indefinite, though our court has not seen fit to go there as yet.)
Following this case, the Supreme Court decided Nautilus, Inc. v. Biosig Instruments, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 212 (2014) in a way that very much agrees with Judge Plager’s suggestions – but goes further by substantially lowering the standard for invalidating ambiguous claim terms by applying the doctrine of indefiniteness. The Supreme Court also highlighted the intentional-ambiguity problem – noting that “absent a meaningful definiteness check, we are told, patent applicants face powerful incentives to inject ambiguity into their claims.” In Nautilus, the Supreme Court was not asked to decide the Supreme Court did not directly indicate that ambiguity should be construed against the drafter. However, the court’s discussion suggest this possibility.
I wonder how patentees would alter their claim drafting if Judge Plager’s rule became law?